Most people who have approached me about my traveling experiences express the most interest in volunteering abroad. Volunteering was one of the most valuable educational experiences I had while traveling, despite the brevity of the work. This post, therefore, is about the lessons I learned while volunteering overseas.
Bear in mind that these observations are drawn solely from my own experiences, and are not to be taken as universally applicable to all volunteering circumstances. These lessons may have differed vastly if I had volunteered elsewhere, or not with refugees headed into Europe. I encourage readers to do their own research and view this as a reflection of a personal experience, instead of a research piece.
WHAT I DID
I volunteered twice: at a resource center for asylum seekers in Belgrade, Serbia, and on the Greek island of Kos. As is to be expected, the bulk of the volunteer work I did was with refugees of many nationalities (mostly Syrian) who were headed for Europe. The flux of refugees into Europe from Syria and other conflict zones is not fresh news, but the media attention does not diminish the seriousness of both the conflict in Syria and the humanitarian crisis centered on refugees fleeing to Europe. According to one BBC article, well over a million migrants have entered Europe in 2015 alone. A few additional resources will be included at the end of the post.
HOW I STARTED VOLUNTEERING
I happened to meet people in Belgrade who were volunteering, and who inspired me to do the same. My reasoning, at the outset, was that I wanted to understand the implementation of international humanitarian aid provision, after learning its theory for four years while working on a Bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. I had also been traveling for almost a month at that point and kind of eager to do something instead of float about, exhausted, with no agenda.
Next, my reasons:
I met a lovely woman at my hostel in Belgrade who stated that when working in humanitarian endeavors like aid provision, one must be clear on what one’s reasons for doing so. The reason for this being that in that situation, you are on the high end of an imbalanced power relationship. Through the smallest actions, you can have a potentially huge effect on the wellbeing of those you are trying to help. After this discussion, I thoroughly considered why I had decided to go through with this.
A few years ago an article about negative aspects of volunteering had made the rounds among the social media pages of my friends in the International Studies department. Going into volunteering, that was what I was most concerned with – being helpful and effective, and not just volunteering for my own personal gratification.
So after thinking for a while on my reasons, I came to the following conclusions:
- The kind of large-scale aid provision was something in which I had a keen interest at university, and I had a good opportunity to not only witness its functions and efficacy but to also gain experience in their implementation through direct participation.
- I wanted to give something back to humanity for this trip I had the opportunity to take. I was having fun, and it felt wrong to just cavort about and enjoy myself without offering what little assistance I could to people who were suffering. This may be skewed mental arithmetic, but it is what I thought at the time
I was at first very concerned with whether or not my reasons were the “right” reasons for getting involved in aid work. This can be debated without end (and therefore will be dissected in its own post), but I am no longer certain that there are really “right” reasons. I agree more with what my friend told me: that you should know clearly why you are doing this work, and not go in without clear purpose.
My second concern was the fact I could not offer a decently long amount of time to help. What can one do when all you have to give is time, and not even much of it? Most people that I talk to about volunteering ask me about this as well, and my usual response is as follows:
FIRST LESSON LEARNED: TIMING & NATURE OF WORK
The timing issue was not a problem in my case, for one main reason. Most people don’t realize that 80% of the work that needed to happen at the time were common tasks that don’t really need a specialized skill set. At very least, they just needed a strong awareness of organization and an ability to follow instructions. Almost all the work I did involved sorting donations and in distributing donated goods. Though the work does not seem particularly urgent at first glance, its importance became quickly undeniable. People need fresh clothing, toiletries, and other supplies, which any organization might have in a storeroom. These things are not helpful, however, to those who need them if they are buried in a messy pile of donated goods and cannot be found quickly, or at all.
This may have been particular to the places where I was volunteering and are therefore not necessarily applicable to other situations or organizations, but it was needed at the time. Blessedly, these tasks did not require a specialized skill set, nor did they need someone who could commit several months.
SECOND LESSON LEARNED : ASK FIRST
This lesson is very closely tied to the section above, and is even simpler: ask what people need before making an assumption on what you should do to help. Do they want donations? If so, do they want goods or funds? Do they want someone to come help? Ask whatever organization you’re hoping to work with these questions before you volunteer. Be honest: if you want to volunteer in-person, tell them how long you can stay and what you can do.
Here’s the important part though: do what they say. Respect their needs. The organizations doing this kind of work have a much clearer idea of what needs to and can be done than you do. Let go of your presumption that you’re going to be doing something “heroic” or glamorous. Even if you are doing something you think is “boring,” observe how your job functions in the organization’s machinery. You will quickly see that everything is essential.
If you can only donate goods or money, many organizations are up front about what they need people to give in order to provide their services efficiently. Most will have a helpful FAQ or “How You Can Help” page detailing what kind of donations the organization prefers: here are some examples.
I learned so much from the short time I spent in Belgrade and Kos. I discovered new things about myself, about people, and about humanitarian organizations that I never could have known if I had not volunteered. I know now how terrifically easy it is, in our world today, for one person to make a positive difference, as long as they can let go of preconceived ideas of what “helping” looks like. I didn’t do much, but I am grateful for the experience and glad that I could give contribute.
The people I have met during these experiences, as well, are some of the most resilient, self-assured, and kind human beings I have ever known. I thank them once again for their patience and the lessons they taught me (whether they knew it nor not).
For Those Looking for Ways to Help
- How You Can Help (incredibly useful blog/website with many resources)
- Recommended organizations from PRI (Public Radio International)
For Information on Refugees:
- MercyCorps Writeup on Syrian Refugee Crisis – updated February 2016
- BBC Chart-based article going over numbers in Refugee crisis (referenced earlier in the post)
- Guardian article on the recent and controversial EU-Turkey deal concerning Refugees:
- Rebuttal article from MSF (Doctors Without Borders)
Organizations & People I Encountered* in No Particular Order:
- Refugee Volunteers; the group I contacted to arrange volunteering on Kos
- Asylum Seekers Info Centar za-Azil; the facility where I volunteered in Belgrade, Serbia
- Charmaine Craig, my first contact who had volunteered in Kos (who has a blog and Facebook page where she discusses her experiences)
- Mercy Corps (Kos)
- Dutch Boat Refugee Foundation (Kos)
- UNHCR (Kos)
- Kos Kindness (Kos)
- Save the Children (Kos)
*by no means inclusive, in Kos especially there were so many organizations in close proximity of each other, and who tended to change every few weeks
Have you had valuable experiences volunteering, or pointers for people looking to volunteer effectively? Anything you feel I missed or you want to see talked about? Leave a comment or shoot me a message!!
**featured image is of the waters between Bodrum, Turkey, and the Greek island of Kos. All images taken by the author.